Catholic Young Adults Discuss: Homosexuality

For her, this didn't mean giving up or hiding Church teaching.

I recently attended a discussion with Catholic young adults on homosexuality (another in the series of discussions which have included topics such as chastity and masculinity/femininity).

For background, the organizer sent us a few short readings:

I had a group of about six people: a seminarian, a former seminarian who now teaches theology, a young married couple (both grad students), and two women who work in youth ministry.

Our conversation started with the usual awkward, “So where do we start?” One of the guys asked, “Well, do any of you have any personal experience with this issue?” He didn’t have much. He and his wife knew gay people in college, but didn’t know any Catholics seriously grappling with it at a personal level. The current seminarian had a gay Catholic friend (me). The former seminarian didn’t know anyone.

The two women did. They both worked in middle and high school youth ministry. They knew a number of gay kids, as well as openly trans kids, who were very enthusiastic about Catholicism and who wanted to understand Church teaching. At least one kid felt conflicted, because he/she felt transgender as an undeniable aspect of his/her life, but also felt a very strong attraction to the Church. At least one other kid had a strong desire to live in accord with Church teaching and felt no contradiction between being transgender and living out this teaching.

One of the youth ministers stressed the importance of meeting people where they are at. She said that you can’t always present all of Church teaching in explicit terms in the beginning of a relationship. You have to develop the relationship, find out where they are, and share Church teachings in stages of development. For her, this didn’t mean giving up or hiding Church teaching or your beliefs. She talked about a close friend who had turned away from the Church but had maintained their relationship. The friend knows her views and, while she doesn’t always share them explicitly, when that friend talks to her or asks her questions, she sees that as an invitation to share her perspectives (which include her perspectives as a Catholic). She shared with our group, “My friend knows what I think about these questions, so when she asks me for my opinion on something, she knows that she’s asking me to share my views. So I’m not beating her over the head with them. I’m letting her open the door to these conversations. If you maintain the friendship long enough and establish trust, they’ll ask those questions. Not that the point is to proselytize. The point is to be a friend.”

At one point, someone asked about “the line” for gay people when it comes to Church teaching. One member of the group shared his view that two people holding hands who were attracted to each other would be inherently sexual and thus would be “objectively disordered” for two gay people. I disagreed, and we had a discussion over the meaning of “sexual” in the Catholic tradition (some of my thoughts on “intrinsic disorder” here, and on “sexual” here).

Another member of the group brought up C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves, and Lewis’ distinction between friendships and erotic relationships. Lewis argues that these are distinct relationships, where two people in an erotic relationship look in towards each other, while friends look out of themselves at something else as primarily constitutive of the relationship. I disagreed with Lewis’ view. I brought up Deus Caritas Est by Pope Benedict XVI, which seems to argue against Lewis’ sharp distinctions. Benedict argues that love, in its highest form, is an integration, and that God’s love is a perfect integration of both eros and agape.

I asked the group whether any of them knew any openly gay people in their parishes. No one did.

During the discussion, it struck me that often people fall into a divide when it comes to moral teaching: either they want to dismiss the objective component of moral teaching, or they want to dismiss the subjective component. The objective component consists of actual written teaching, the Tradition, history, recorded Scripture, the world around us, our own beings, etc. The subjective component consist of individual, unrepeatable, irreducible experience and relationship to these things. We struggle to integrate both components, either by waving away the objective component (common among those that we, perhaps irresponsibly, call “liberals”) or by waving away the subjective component (common among “conservatives”). The Church’s teaching only makes sense when it can connect the two, as Karol Wojtyla calls upon spiritual advisors to do in Love and Responsibility:

“[A]lthough it is easy to draw up a set of rules for Catholics in the sector of ‘sexual’ morality the need to validate these rules makes itself felt at every step. For the rules often run up against greater difficulties in practice than in theory, and the spiritual advisor, who is concerned above all with the practical, must seek ways of justifying them. For his task is not only to command or forbid, but to justify, to interpret, to explain.”

Part of the reason, I suspect, why Church teaching makes little sense to many gay people is that Catholics committed to Church teaching have not sufficiently engaged gay people in order to understand what it would mean to “justify, interpret, and explain” Church teaching to them. Often, gay people are condemned for not simply “submitting” to this teaching (which, admittedly, I do believe Catholics have a responsibility to do, though not by mindless conformism). But when we fail to recognize the subjective component of Church teaching, we fail to even present it in full. Church teaching does not and cannot exist apart from both its objective and subjective components. And in order to bring to light its subjective components, we need to engage with individual human lives. We need to learn to take on the minds and lives of our gay friends, so that we can find the thread which might tie together for them the objective and subjective. It seems to me that the women working in youth ministry might be best equipped to do this, while those of us who dwell primarily in the intellectual study of “moral teaching” are poorly equipped to either understand or present it.

Our discussion had multiple groups. Here are the discussion from a member of another group:

One person brought up limitations in understanding gay people and said, “I can only relate to a point… It’s kind of like race.” Another said that comparing race to sexuality is a little slippery, though the comparison makes sense in a way: “Oftentimes race is a visual identifier. Only through perceived stereotypes is sexuality visually identifiable.”

Another pointed out an “us vs. them” mentality in the Church when it comes to these questions, and another agreed that this is partially true: “Though there are many LGBT people in the Church who are actively participating without anger or fear, there are probably twice as many who have left for being (justifiably) angry and afraid.”

Another, straight, member of the group pointed out: “There aren’t any ‘celebrated’ vocations in the Church for gay people.” One gay member agreed, pointing out that marriages aren’t sacramentally valid between gay people, gay men are discouraged from entering (or dismissed from) seminaries, and being single isn’t celebrated nearly as much as marriage is. And with the ambiguity of Church teaching / Church leaders surrounding the romantic relationships of same-sex people, the previous guy pointed out that he understands why gay people get mad and leave.

Someone raised the question of whether we need a ministry specific to gay people. People had mixed answers, but pointed out that it is interesting to note that other vocations have specific and varied outreach initiatives: marriage prep retreats, NFP, religious discernment retreats, Catholic Match.

The employment issue came up also (especially the issue of selectivity and inconsistency surrounding the firings of LGBT people vs. the general population). Instances were noted of people who had been fired from Catholic schools who were straight and deviated from teaching, but these were far fewer than LGBT folks. “Why does this happen?”

When someone asked about whether or not gay people need a ministry, one of the guys thought of a reason that ministries exist: suffering. We need to meet sufferers with their crosses like Veronica and Simon. Though “everyone suffers” (the response one gay member frequently gets when he shares, “I’m gay/Catholic and I have issues”), the Church talks a big game when it comes to suffering (embracing it, finding meaning in it, it is at the core of salvation history) but we often only celebrate and feel the need to share certain kinds of suffering (family, addictions, issues with pregnancy, illness, hardship with work or lack of work, death). Not that those kinds of suffering are any less deserving of prayers than folks who struggle with sexual identity. But, one member shared, it is sometimes frustrating to not hear someone say “I’m praying for you and your issues with your same-sex partner,” or, “Let’s pray for the child that came out.” He asked, “Why can’t we publicly pray for each other? Why does that suffering get swept under the rug as if it doesn’t exist in the Church?”

More of my thoughts on Catholicism and homosexuality here.

1 comment on “Catholic Young Adults Discuss: Homosexuality

  1. This is really interesting. I have noticed the sharp distinctions in debates between the subjective and objective dimensions of the sexuality debates. I really appreciate Bernard Lonergan’s and other’s insights in intersubjectivity here. I also recently presented a paper on a C.S. Lewis panel on this subjective/objective binary in Lewis’ own thought. My argument was that while “The Four Loves” seems to sharply divide these emotions, and sometimes he seems very ‘objective’ in his arguments in regards to sexuality, he actually demonstrates the sort of intersubjective logic necessary in an integration of the two in “Surprised By Joy.”


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